Decoding the Subtext: The Problem of Thor Bridge
Baring-Gould dates The Problem of Thor Bridge in October of 1900. Watson tells us that it is October, but does not mention a year. The story, however, contains several elements which suggest a later date. Indeed, your author is tempted to date this story in the early years of Holmes' retirement. We shall return to this theory throughout our analysis, noting here only Watson's reference to Holmes' famous career, as well as Holmes' reference to Watson's chronicles as evidence for a later date. The story was first published in February of 1922.
Sherlock Holmes is commission by a Mr. Neil Gibson to look into the death of his wife, and to then prove his governess innocent of her murder. Holmes agrees, and although he and Gibson butt heads on several occasions, Holmes is quickly able to cast aside the evidence against Miss Dunbar and form his own hypothesis. A chip in Thor Bridge is what leads Holmes to his conclusion, and with the aid of Watson's revolver he is soon able to demonstrate that Mrs. Gibson's murder was, in fact, a suicide.
Before turning our examination to the subtext contained within the story, we must first note that Watson is writing this story in 1922 (possibly late 1921). Within the first few paragraphs, he spends some time discussing Holmes' past cases before deciding to document the events contained with The Problem of Thor Bridge. It is during this time that Watson tells us:
There remain a considerable residue of cases of greater or less interest which I might have edited before had I not feared to give the public a surfeit which might react upon the reputation of the man whom above all others I revere.
Here can assume two things. First, that Holmes is still very much alive in 1922, for Watson refers to Holmes' reputation in the present tense. Second, we can conclude that it is Holmes, above all others, that holds Watson's admiration; indeed, poor Mary Morstan does not seem to appear on Watson's list. This is quite remarkable, not to mention telling, for we can no longer doubt that Watson remained loyal to Holmes throughout their retired years. A four decade commitment and we are not at all surprised that their relationship has stood the test of time.
We mentioned above the possibility that this story took place some years after Baring-Gould's date. In our dating of the story, we suggest that it is possible that Holmes was in the early years of his retirement during this case. While there are certainly problems with this suggestion, allow us to examine several comments which lead us to believe that Holmes and Watson are no longer in Baker Street, and, indeed, have retired together.
It was a wild morning in October, and I observed as I was dressing how the last remaining leaves were being whirled from the solitary plane tree which graces the yard behind our house.
While other scholars have examined the probability that such a tree grew behind 221B Baker Street (finding evidence which suggests an improbability) here we wish only to point out Watson's statement of a yard behind our house. Watson has referred to Baker Street as their apartments, and their rooms, but never their house. Therefore, either they had purchased the home from Mrs. Hudson (although again, this theory is improbable), or they had moved. Where else, then, but to Sussex, where Holmes and Watson rented a small villa. We have no doubt that, during the early years of Holmes' supposed retirement, Holmes may have taken on the occasional case. It would have taken him years to set up a bee colony, after all.
Further proof can be found to substantiate this theory as Holmes tells Watson:
"There is little to share, but we may discuss it when you have consumed the two hard-boiled eggs with which our new cook has favoured us."
Curious, is it not, that in all their years in Baker Street Mrs. Hudson saw to the cooking. One wonders, then, why Holmes should feel the need to mention a new cook. Some time later, Holmes will also mention Billy the page; noteworthy, for we begin to see the building of a household. It is your author's opinion, then, that Holmes and Watson moved, together, to Sussex, where they established a household as befitted their needs. That this household should be scaled down to an old housekeeper (and even this is suggestive, for while scholars have speculated that this woman is, in fact, Mrs. Hudson, we must also suggest that the title of old refers to her having survived Holmes' round of lay-offs) with Holmes and Watson's true retirement is not surprising.
Having finished their breakfast, Holmes is now in a position to share what little he knows of the case. Their client arrives later that morning, and Holmes' piercing questions are quick to anger Mr. Gibson. Indeed, at one point Mr. Gibson makes as if to strike Holmes. Here, Watson tells us:
I sprang to my feet, for the expression upon the millionaire’s face was fiendish in its intensity, and he had raised his great knotted fist.
We cannot help but note Watson's protectiveness here. Indeed, we have no doubt that Watson would throw himself between the millionaire's rage and Holmes if he thought it might save Holmes some injury.
This outburst is followed by Gibson's leaving, but Holmes is not alarmed, knowing that Gibson cares too much for Miss Dunbar to leave her case in the hands of mere defence lawyers. In fact, immediately following Gibson's leave-taking, Watson tells us:
Our visitor made a noisy exit, but Holmes smoked in imperturbable silence with dreamy eyes fixed upon the ceiling.
One cannot quite fathom the reason that Holmes' expression should shift to dreamy, and so we must deduce that Holmes merely glanced to the ceiling, and that Watson's use of the word dreamy was meant to describe Holmes' eyes, rather than his expression. Clearly, Watson, despite the passage of so many long years, is still quite smitten.
Only a few moments pass before Gibson's return, and Holmes is soon able to convince him that the best course of action is to lay out the entire truth. Gibson does exactly, telling Holmes that he pressed advances on Miss Dunbar, but that she did not reciprocate his feelings. Holmes is quite off-put by Gibson's treatment of Dunbar, and Watson tells us:
Holmes could look very formidable when he was moved.
Scorn is the emotion behind Holmes' formidability, and we cannot help but remark that this largely stemmed from Gibson's treatment of his wife, and his governess. It becomes quite apparent, then, that Holmes is quite the chivalrous gentleman. One wonders if Watson appreciated this particular trait.
Shortly after Gibson's narrative, Holmes does agree to take on the case, and he and Watson head down to Thor Place to begin their investigation. Holmes starts at the scene of the murder, and there Watson tells us:
He seated himself upon the stone ledge of the bridge, and I could see his quick gray eyes darting their questioning glances in every direction.
Again we are witness to Watson's singular obsession with Holmes' eyes. In fact, it becomes tempting to date this story at an earlier date, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary. Perhaps Watson had only recently obtained a set of eye glasses. He was, after all, quickly pushing past middle-age.
Having examined the bridge, their investigation comes to a stand still, Holmes unable to proceed until he has had a chance to interview Miss Dunbar. Watson tells us:
We were compelled to spend the night at Winchester...
While Winchester is quite far from London, it is even more difficult to reach from Sussex. One wonders if this is the true reason Holmes and Watson chose not to take the train home, instead passing the evening in a local inn. Then again, they could very well have used the opportunity to engage in a romantic evening away from home.
The next morning, Holmes and Watson are able to interview Miss Dunbar, and it is shortly after her testimony that Watson tells us:
His pale, eager face had suddenly assumed that tense, far-away expression which I had learned to associate with the supreme manifestations of his genius.
We see here that, again, despite the passage of many a long year, Watson is still quite taken with his Holmes. Watson's continued infatuation with Holmes aside, the above is of interest, not in itself, but in context with Holmes' next remarks. Upon sitting lost in thought for some times, Watson tells us:
Suddenly he sprang from his chair, vibrating with nervous energy and the pressing need for action.
Holmes then shouts:
"Come, Watson, come!"
And we can only imagine that Holmes was in need of a momentary distraction. He had not yet gathered the threads of his theory together, and what better way to clarify his mind than to drag Watson back to their hotel and work off some of his nervous energy.
Watson would, of course, have us believe that they headed straight to Thor Place. Sadly, we must accept this turn of events, for Watson's next action is to tell us:
It was not a long journey from Winchester to Thor Place, but it was long to me in my impatience, while for Holmes it was evident that it seemed endless; for, in his nervous restlessness he could not sit still, but paced the carriage or drummed with his long, sensitive fingers upon the cushions beside him.
Here one simply must question: How was it that Watson knew Holmes' fingers were sensitive? An unusual statement, to be sure. Especially between two friends. Two lovers, on the other hand... We must agree, then, that the above statement is quite sensual, especially when put into context with Holmes' next actions.
Suddenly, however, as we neared our destination he seated himself opposite to me — we had a first-class carriage to ourselves — and laying a hand upon each of my knees he looked into my eyes with the peculiarly mischievous gaze which was characteristic of his more imp-like moods.
Your author does not feel as though the above passage requires an explanation. In fact, I believe we shall simply take a moment so that we might catch our breath.
Remarkable as it may seem, the subtext does not end there, for soon Holmes turns to questioning Watson regarding his "revolver". Their conversation, one must agree, is quite... charged.
"Watson," said he, "I have some recollection that you go armed upon these excursions of ours."
It was as well for him that I did so, for he took little care for his own safety when his mind was once absorbed by a problem so that more than once my revolver had been a good friend in need. I reminded him of the fact.
"Yes, yes, I am a little absent-minded in such matters. But have you your revolver on you?"
I produced it from my hip-pocket, a short, handy, but very serviceable little weapon. He undid the catch, shook out the cartridges, and examined it with care.
"It's heavy — remarkably heavy," said he.
"Yes, it is a solid bit of work."
He mused over it for a minute.
"Do you know, Watson," said he, "I believe your revolver is going to have a very intimate connection with the mystery which we are investigating."
Apparently Holmes and Watson have taken to having sex on the train now. A bit of a risk, but as they did have a first class carriage to themselves, we have no doubt that their activities went unnoticed. We need not, of course, mention the euphemism in the above conversation, for it should be quite obvious.
Some time later (and we can well imagine that Holmes and Watson were forced to scramble to make themselves decent as their train arrived at Thor Place) Holmes does, in fact, find a use for Watson's revolver (and it is nice to note that their mid-case distraction did indeed result in a flash of insight for Holmes). Some doubt, however, does linger, Holmes telling Watson:
"Yes," he said in answer to my remark, "you have seen me miss my mark before, Watson. I have an instinct for such things, and yet it has sometimes played me false. It seemed a certainty when first it flashed across my mind in the cell at Winchester, but one drawback of an active mind is that one can always conceive alternative explanations which would make our scent a false one. And yet — and yet — Well, Watson, we can but try."
A testament, to their long years of friendship, and the extreme intimacy which existed between them, that Holmes should confess his doubts for Watson to hear.
It takes but one demonstration for Holmes to prove his theory, his doubts unfounded, and soon Holmes announces:
"We'll stay at the inn to-night," he continued as he rose and faced the astonished sergeant.
Despite the conclusion of the case, Holmes is not willing to make the long trek home; too eager is he to return to their rooms where they might finish what they started in the train. This becomes quite apparent later, Watson telling us:
Late that evening, as we sat together smoking our pipes in the village inn...
What Watson meant to say, we are sure, was:
Late that evening, as we sat together smoking our after-sex pipes in the village inn…
One wonders if Holmes chose his standard shag tobacco for these occasions, or if he had a special blend.